Primrose says that like a physician, he adheres to the Hippocratic oath when restoring works of art: “Do No Harm.” The key tenet behind conservation is that you do not add anything to the painting that will take away its truth, he explains in his large, high-ceilinged Cape Cod studio surrounded outside by tranquil woods and the sounds of birdcalls.
Primrose says the next challenge is to rescue Sheriff Francis Cottle Smith from the Dukes County Martha’s Vineyard Courthouse where an 1883 portrait attributed to the Boston artist Nahum Ball Onthank has hung for years. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum was given funds for the painting’s restoration by a family with island connections. Primrose says he viewed the painting in private chambers for some time to assess the damage.
In her book The Ravished Image, Sarah Walden says, “…The restorer should spend almost as much time looking at the picture as working upon it.” Steeped in concen-
tration, oblivious to any distractions, Primrose measures the portrait of Sheriff Francis Cottle Smith. He stares into the eyes of the subject. He stands, sits, and crouches on the floor looking at the canvas from all angles with scrutiny, not missing a brush stroke.
Carefully he touches the gash in the lower left canvas and measures that too. He jots down detailed notes as he goes. After 45 minutes of looking at all the clues, he thanks the chief clerk who says, in a Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson-like exchange, “Someone’s knee accidentally poked the canvas.” In the mysterious world of art restoration and conservation, Ian Primrose always sees the big picture.